Pirates have more than a catcher in Martin
Backstop getting opportunities to show versatility at third base
PITTSBURGH -- Russell Martin would wrap up batting-practice sessions in Spring Training by taking grounders at short. He raised a minor international furor by declining to join Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic because they wouldn't let him play short. Now Martin is occasionally in the Pirates' starting lineup as a third baseman.
And whenever Martin comes out from behind the plate to play elsewhere, people react as if seeing a fish try to walk on land.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle humors the questions and keeps explaining patiently that Martin is capable of playing multiple positions.
"He can do this," Hurdle said. "I've seen him play there when I was with the Rockies. He's very athletic."
The unmasking of Martin may have only begun, with Hurdle implying that he could soon also pop up in right field, another position at which he is considered adept.
There is no indication that being promised a chance to play other positions helped attract Martin to Pittsburgh as a free agent, but there is no doubt he is enjoying the occasional returns to his baseball roots. He is a three-time All-Star catcher, in both leagues, yet Martin has never stopped looking at the greener grass on the other side of the field.
So how did Martin become a catcher, anyway?
Welcome to six degrees of Jumbo Diaz -- yes, the 280-pound right-hander who had a fun ride with the Bucs in 2012 Spring Training and has since moved on to the Reds' organization.
An unsigned 35th-round pick of the Montreal Expos in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft -- the 1,035th overall selection, as a third baseman -- Martin signed with the Dodgers after they made him a 17th-round pick in 2002, as a second baseman. Martin spent his first half-season as a pro playing third for the Rookie League Gulf Coast Dodgers. Diaz was a 19-year-old fireballer on the same team.
One day during extended camp following that 2002 season, Dodgers scouting director Logan White waved Martin over.
"He brought me in to catch one bullpen," Martin recalled. "For Jumbo Diaz. He threw like 100 [mph]. So they brought me in the cage, made me catch this guy. I guess they just saw that I had good hands, footwork, arm strength. They felt it would be a good fit for me with the Dodgers, that my bat was more in line with catching."
Luis Salazar, Martin's Rookie League manager, thought he had a future at third base.
"[He] went to bat for me in meetings, saying, 'We think he's gonna play a pretty good third, I don't think you should change that.' But they opted for me to catch," Martin said. "They said I'd probably have a better chance of making the Majors as a catcher. They sold me on it."
Coming from the same organization that had converted Mike Piazza from a 62nd-round pick as a first baseman into a possible Hall of Fame catcher, it was an easy sell.
Martin still isn't convinced of the better-chance-to-make-it part.
"Honestly," he said, "I would've fought to death to make it wherever I played. I don't regret it, I'm happy where I am right now. But going to catching definitely was a step back. I had to learn a whole new position, a whole new aspect of the game, whereas at third base, I'd just have to go play.
"When I first started catching, I had 2 1/2 years to get comfortable. I had to be uncomfortable for two years, after having been comfortable at another position. It was taking a step backward to take two steps forward."
There was nothing gradual about the transition. By 2003, Martin was exclusively a catcher. By '06, he was catching for the Dodgers. By '07, Martin was their All-Star catcher.
"Overall," Martin said, "it's been a good move. Not only did I learn a new position, but it helped me learn more about the game of baseball. I'm in a situation where I feel I can have more impact on the game. You can definitely impact the game at third base. But catching -- the ball's in your hand every play. On a daily basis, catching has more impact on the subtleties of the game -- game-calling, blocking pitches, managing pitchers. I enjoy that.
"Sure, catching takes a greater toll on the body. But it's definitely also more fulfilling on a daily basis."
Being able to dabble at alternate positions thus allows a physical as well as a mental break, but that won't be the only benefit to the Bucs. Many were somewhat surprised that the Pirates made such a heavy investment in another veteran catcher, thus again benching Michael McKenry's powerful, clutch bat. Having Martin play elsewhere gets both bats into the lineup.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.